Busan 2017 Review: MISSING, a Compelling Women-Led Kidnap Drama

Uhm Ji-won and Gong Hyo-jin star in E.Oni's refreshing thriller.

Contributor; Seoul, South Korea (@pierceconran)
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Busan 2017 Review: MISSING, a Compelling Women-Led Kidnap Drama

The kidnap thriller is a popular genre in Korea but E.Oni's Missing proves to be a refreshing addition to the crowded genre, buoyed by a pair of fine performances by Uhm Ji-won and Gong Hyo-jin in a story forged by compelling and twisting themes of female identity and motherhood in a patriarchal society. The film ends on a slightly disappointing note with a soft climax but the buildup and characters make the journey there more than worthwhile during its svelte 100 minute running time.

A high-level PR executive, Ji-sun is in the midst of a custody battle with her ex-husband for her daughter Da-eun. Due to the demands of her work and the legal case, she hires Han-mae, a Korean-Chinese nanny, to care for Da-eun during the day. When she returns from work one evening, both Han-mae and Da-eun have disappeared. Not wanting to jeopardize her custody battle, Ji-sun doesn't contact the police and conducts her own search, during which she discovers that Han-mae might not have been the person she thought she was.

Missing juxtaposes a conventional setup with the backstory of the mysterious Han-mae, whose roots and motivations, not to mention her heritage, pop against the clean, residential locations that serve as the setting for the film's first act. As Ji-sun digs deeper in her search she visits lower-rent neighborhoods and shady locales, such as a massage parlor staffed by illegal immigrants, but Han-mae's story goes deeper still.

A few of the typical tension builders in kidnap thrillers appear in Missing, such as a voice on a call coolly relating instructions for a cash drop, but for the most part E's film draws its tension and mystery from its women leads, and the particular terrors of Ji-sun's present and Han-mae's past which guide their hands at the crossroads where they find themselves. Men are of no help in this narrative, with Ji-sun's husband and the police force more or less absent, while other male characters in the investigation are more often than not obstacles with their lies and manipulations.

Uhm (Hope) puts in a strong lead as Ji-sun, playing her as a woman gradually driven to despair but who never breaks down in her search. Yet, despite the strength of her performance, she's overshadowed by the excellent Gong (Crush and Blush), who appears in far fewer scenes but whose presence is magnetic and whose aura lingers, even in the scenes she doesn't appear in. Her soft smile and cooing voice hide dark secrets that lurk beneath, but even as the truth begins to pour out and Han-mae shifts into the role of the villain, Gong makes her effortlessly alluring.

Missing didn't quite make the waves it might have when it was released late last year, on the back of a slew of the more mundane thrillers that studios typically roll out in the fall season, but with it, E (who is known for the terminal illness youth drama ...ing) proved that she's more than capable of handling other genres. Her next work, The Accidental Detective 2, should be on screens within a few months, but is unlikely to exhibit as unique a flavor.

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